Art at the Market: Chameleon Blind

Artist Mara Baker’s Chameleon Blind Window Project connects vacant storefronts with the streetscape outside. By filling the empty windows with the colors and patterns of the city, Baker integrates the empty space back into public life. Her installation in the Chicago Market space is a collaboration between Chicago Market and Business Partners, The Chamber for Uptown, supported by a Public Art Grant. The installation is on display in the windows of the Chicago Market building and will be lit up each evening. Stop by our storefront in the Gerber Building at the Wilson CTA station to see it!

Attend: Chameleon Blind: Uptown Public Art Opening

What inspired you to take on this project? How did you start working in the abandoned storefronts, and what inspired you to choose that distinctive visual palette of the city? 

I’ve lived in Chicago for the past 12 years, in different neighborhoods. I’m very much inspired by the city. My work for the last 10 years has been heavily influenced by collecting things from my daily walks and thinking visually about the streetscape and environment I live in.  

The idea of displaying the Chameleon Blind in storefronts throughout the city evolved; I didn’t start with a grand vision. I installed the first iteration of the work in the Corner Project Window space on Milwaukee Avenue in Avondale, from February to April of 2018. My focus was on creating a work that directly responded to the other storefront windows on the block - that visual cacophony of vibrant LED lights, graphic signs and idiosyncratic, highly personal displays. 

The installation was designed to offer luminous respite from Chicago’s long, dark, grey winter. Each night, at the exact moment of dusk, the installation would light up, creating a vivid and colorful experience for people as they passed by. I was blown away by the positive response I received during the installation. It made me excited to focus more on public and community-driven work, finding new ways to display my work in non-traditional spaces that the public interact with in their daily lives without having to go to a dedicated gallery space. 

What made you want to install the project at the Chicago Market site? Did you incorporate elements of the Gerber building architecture into the installation? 

I spent the majority of 2019 developing relationships and collaborations with community groups, local businesses, and Chambers of Commerce to site the project meaningfully throughout the city, which led me to the folks at Uptown United. The Gerber Building was suggested as a unique opportunity that would have a big impact on the community as it awaits the opening of the Chicago Market. The Gerber Building is a beautiful historic space, near public transit and daily commutes, making it a perfect fit for the project. I was really excited to work with the façade and unique shape of the building. If you look closely you can see the signature 'X' shape found in the newly restored decorative façade throughout the installation. 

You use a lot of found materials in your work. Where do you go to find materials? What do you look for in found materials? 

A major part of my practice is the reuse and repurposing of the discarded materials of urban life, what I call residues. I pick up and save construction-related fragments and bits, scattered packaging materials, and other seeming trash, and bring it back to my studio, giving the shards and remnants new life in my work. I intuitively respond to color, shapes, and found grid structures. A broken light grid, once used to diffuse and scatter light in an office complex, becomes a light and color machine; Weathered fishing ropes from a junkyard in Maine lend their history and resonance to my sculptural weavings; High contrast colors found in the urban streetscape including bright neon yellow flagging tape and fluorescent paint used to demarcate sewers, drains, gas, and lighting cables are all borrowed and distilled into my color palette. 

In full disclosure, I work with a mixture of found and bought materials - if I find something that I’m really inspired by, as I work large scale, it’s often not enough and I’ll have to get more. It’s a balancing act; I always use what’s present in the world and recycled from my studio first and then when I need to purchase new materials, I do. 

A good bit of the detritus I’ve collected has a relationship to food packaging. A lot of food comes in packages that aren’t necessarily disposable but are really interesting grids in and of themselves – some examples include the plastic sleeves they put around wine bottles and the net bags used for fruit and veg. If you look closely, you can see food packaging bits woven into the frames throughout the installation. It’s not terribly important to me that you recognize them -  in fact I kind of like that my materials become ambiguous - but the story and history is fun for me. 

Are the grids in your work evoking the idea of weaving? What about the street grid? 

At its most basic level a weaving is constructed from a grid. The frames for this project hold a warp or the vertical part of a weaving, which is basically one side of a grid and provides a structure for me to hold all of my bits of detritus and create tactile drawings with rope. Chicago is based on a grid, but then you have Broadway and the other weird diagonal streets that break up the grid. In each of the frames created for this work, I am working with and breaking up the grid structure simultaneously to create visual tension. I love the idea that you can see streets in my weavings. Although I am not illustrating the city specifically, I am drawing inspiration from the Chicago street grid as well as the grids found in architecture, specifically windows. 

I have to ask, since Chicago Market is a grocery co-op - do you think that food or cooking can be art? 

I 100% think cooking can be art and view it as a creative practice. Just as you have raw materials in art, you have raw materials with food, and once you know the basic language of food, you can be very creative within that. I taught myself how to cook; I’m a huge CSA [Community-Supported Agriculture] and co-op fan. In the same way that I think about materials in my studio - there are lousy materials and great materials - places like Chicago Market are thinking about where materials come from and providing the raw materials that people need for creative practices like cooking and making. You can get quite nerdy about food, which gives me great pleasure. I find cooking to be a creative non-professional outlet and love hosting dinner parties and cooking for and with friends. 

What else should we know about the Chameleon Blind installation at Chicago Market? 

I started doing this project in 2018, because the dark Chicago winter was really hard on me and I wanted to see art and light in my neighborhood. This is still the grounding inspiration. Ultimately, I hope that Chameleon Blind provides light and art for the community as they go about their daily lives. One of the big draws for me to make this project is how accessible it is. For me there’s a big joy in activating vacant space, and even more joy in watching the public activate the work by their interactions. People have come by as I’m installing and given me a thumbs up through the windows – or just stopped to look. Ultimately, that’s why I’m doing it. 

In 2020, Mara plans to install Chameleon Blind in several additional storefronts throughout the city. She is also excited to embark on a new project using natural dyes derived from wildflowers gathered in the city. Learn more about Mara at her website.

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